Seattle to use nationwide opioid settlement funds to fight fentanyl crisis

Local health experts say areas in downtown and central Seattle are seeing the highest rates of fentanyl-related deaths in King County.

408 people died of from fentanyl overdose so far in 2023. There were 712 fentanyl-related deaths last year.

The city is due for a windfall from the nationwide opioid settlement, with officials working to figure out how the millions of dollars could best help the fight against addiction to the synthetic drug.

"The lies told by opioid manufacturers have created a pandemic-scale public health emergency," said City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, chair of the Public Safety and Human Services Committee.

Out of the 712 people in King County that died from fentanyl in 2022, the majority of them lived in Seattle.

"There’s a huge escalation of overdose deaths in the city. This is a super unfortunate event, but we know that this is primarily driven by fentanyl and often within our unhoused population," said Brad Finegood, strategic advisor with Public Health – Seattle & King County.

The Public Safety and Human Services Committee recently heard from people who are on the frontlines fighting the fentanyl and opioid crisis.

"It’s to protect our community members and our people who are most vulnerable," said Finegood. 

Their stories could help the city determine how to best use the $14.2 million received from a nationwide opioid settlement. The money would pay for resources to curb addiction and overdoses.

During the committee meeting, the panel shared how previous grants from the city helped provide treatment to those who are struggling.

"Whether it is going to residential treatment or detox or engaging in recovery, or whether it is walking to a harm reduction agency—people are going to receive treatment for what they’re working on in a way which they’re willing to receive it. And that treatment might be as little as a fentanyl test strip to protect their lives from what they’re doing and empower them," said Finegood. 

"With a very small investment of City dollars, they’ve saved scores of lives, collectively distributing more than 20,000 harm-reduction kits with life-saving tools that include the overdose reversal drug naloxone and increased access to medications that help people with opioid use disorder for individuals with high barriers to care. The programs have also focused on serving people living in encampments and served high numbers of BIPOC community members," said Herbold.

The city will decide how to allocate the settlement funds over an 18-year period. This is in addition to another settlement agreement signed by City Attorney Ann Davison back in April.

"That is expected to net the city approximately an additional $18.1 million in opioid settlement funds. And it’s possible that some or all of that funding could be combined with the funding already referenced," said Ann Gorman with City of Seattle’s Council Central Staff.

Currently, the city is partnering with University of Washington’s Research Expert Advisors on Drug Use (READU) program. The researchers will be seeking community input on addiction treatment opportunities. Results of that outreach will help determine if the city creates its own plan for the settlement dollars, or pool them with King County on a unified plan.

"Harm reduction working alongside treatment needs to be scaled up to adequately address our overdose crisis," said Herbold. "Because the funds are spread across such a long period of time, it’s imperative that we invest them to the areas of greatest impact."

Herbold said core strategies the plan will prioritize, according to the lawsuit settlement, include:

  • Naloxone
  • Medication-Assisted Treatment, including residential treatment that allows medication
  • Pregnant & Post-Partum Women – Screening/Brief Intervention/Referral to Treatment (SBIRT); MAT and other evidence-based treatment; wraparound services
  • Syringe Services expansion

Whatever is decided, advocates said action is needed now to help save lives.

"Maybe one day they’ll stop using drugs and maybe one day they won’t. But what’s really important is that we do good by those people, we keep them alive and we mitigate the harms that an extremely toxic drug supply right now is causing," said Finegood. 

Snohomish County already established its goals for the settlement funds after County Executive Dave Somers revealed he lost his brother to fentanyl in March.

RELATED: Lummi Nation hosts statewide tribal summit to address fentanyl crisis in Washington

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A draft of a plan from Seattle and the county will be developed this summer, followed by a finalized plan in the fall.